...a nacreous jewel, one's perception of its beauty shifting or even disappearing depending upon the angle of one's observation...
If You're Thinking About Coming to Brazil
and You Can't Stand the Heat
Brazil is not a European nation. It's not a North American nation. It's not an East Asian nation. It straddles -- jungle and desert and dense urban centers -- both the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn. It absorbed over ten times the number of African slaves taken to the United States of America. Its people have lived under oligarchy, plutocracy, dictatorships and massive corruption, with elements of these still strongly entrenched here today.
Brazil has buzz...not the shallow buzz of fashionable moment...but the deep buzz of a population which in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- the tough slog through life to which they are submitted daily by humanity's dregs-in-fine-linen, have chosen not to pull themselves glumly through it all but to make the best of things and lift their voices in song and their bodies in dance...to eat well and converse well and much and to wring the joy out of day-to-day happenings and small pleasures which are so often ignored or set aside in the European, North American, and East Asian nations.
For this Brazil has a genius perhaps unparalled in all other countries and societies, a genius which thrives alongside peeling paint and holes in the streets and roads, under bad organization by the powers-that-be -- both civil and governmental -- under a constant rain of societal indignities...
Which is to say that if prospective first-time visitors to Brazil are expecting light and orderliness, they will certainly find the light! And the buzz of a people who for generations have responded to privation at many different levels by somehow rising above it.
If Brazil has anything like greatness it is because it is such fertile ground for producing people capable of weaving poetry out of poverty.
Salvador's "Historic Centre" has long been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, UNESCO declaring that "Within the boundaries of the Historic Centre of Salvador de (sic) Bahia are located all the elements necessary to express its Outstanding Universal Value." We beg to disagree. Bahia's elements of outstanding universal value are rooted in the Recôncavo, the plantation area around Bahia's great bay (which at one time extended into what is now urban Salvador). Salvador's Historic Centre was/is a nice copy of Lisbon. But the Bantus of the Recôncavo gave humanity something which had never existed before. Their simple villages (many still extant today) and the musical culture of the people who live in them, are truly, whether universally acknowledged or not, a splendid part of humanity's most magnificent heritage.
Once Upon a Night at the End of the World
is a project to take some of the world's most powerfully moving (and misunderstood) music, born in trial and imbued with spirit and grace, beyond its native ground to the world at large, and bring the world to it.
Because Brazil is bigger, deeper, wider and profoundly shimmeringly, shakingly more than just the girl from Ipanema and Carnival girls in feathers...
Dr. Dossar, African American Studies, left; Bule Bule, the "griot" of Bahia, right, in our musical headquarters in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil
The End of a Great Epoch Draws Near
Samba was born on the sugarcane plantations of Bahia. It was passed down from generation to generation to generation...and the final generation to have learned it as a true folk music, not from radio or records (these people grew up without electricity) is now into its sixties, seventies, and beyond...
So the time to experience these people playing this music, is now.
João do Boi and family and friends outside his house in São Braz, Bahia, Brazil.
This is What It's All About
Did you know that Brazil has gods (football aside)? In the sense that the Greeks and the Romans did? The Greek and Roman gods were done in by Constantine (first blow) and Theodosius (final blow). The gods of Brazil were born in Africa and arrived in Brazil within the negreiros making the Middle Passage, a voyage which transported not only people, but a culture. There was a great attempt by the Brazilian poobahs to exterminate the gods of Africa in Brazil, but it didn't work.
And as the Roman emperors moved to extinguish the very real belief in Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, Minerva and the rest, banning the ceremonies to these deities, the Brazilian "authorities" banned the ceremonies devoted to Oxalá, Oxossi, Iansã, Yemanjá and the rest. But like the ultimate futility of the communist stomping-on of Christianity in Russia, Poland, et al, the piety of the Brazilian ruling class was to no avail (can't you people ever mind your own business!???).
Now, the Greeks and Romans had statues; magnificent, wondrously conceived, wrought and elaborated statues. The Africans had rhythms, and melodies...magnificent, wondrously conceived, wrought and elaborated rhythms, over which are floated (they aren't attached, per Western music) melodies ranging from inspired to sublime. Some of these rhythms (one in particular) are the basis of Brazilian popular music.
So as marble adorns Rome, rhythm adorns Brazil...but to carry the analogy further, as the statues have with the passage of time become fewer and farther between, the modernization of Brazilian popular music has left the rhythms fewer and farther between (excepting those in Bahia's houses of candomblé, these houses multiplying greatly in number over the past few decades)...
But this is Brazil, isn't it? With music everywhere?
Paulinho da Viola - Looks pretty cool to me!
Yes, and yes, but. Samba and its vertentes are based in polyrhythms. And while one may say that Brazilian music was enriched by the confluence of African rhythm-and-melodies and European melodies-and-harmonies, the rhythmic component was, with the Americanization of the 1950s, and then under the effects of the British invasion of the '60s and the astounding market success of first-world music, impoverished. Speaking frankly, it was dumbed down. Detexturized. Anesthetized. Edge and angle taken out. Soothed and smoothed... Witness the birth of bossa nova and MPB (música popular brasileira)! Yes, there was genius there, but not in the strictly African-derived part of the music...that was old-fashioned, not hip.
Thank god for unhip people like Paulinho da Viola! Paulinho came of age in the 60s, when Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil went hippie, they celebrating the we-can-do-anything culture with their invention of tropicália, one ear to the sidewalks of San Francisco and the intersection of Haight-Ashbury...
Paulinho played samba then. He plays samba now. Music. Where somebody sings. And people play instruments. No BS. Paulinho's music was never modern, but it is timeless.
The great Bobby Sanabria quoted the great Art Blakey as saying that a place where jazz is played is a holy place, Bobby following this up with (addressing his audience from the stage) "So thanks for coming to church!"
In the spirit of Art Blakey, a place where samba is played is a holy place...and we ain't talkin' 'bout The Girl from Ipanema. Samba, with all the assaults upon its integrity, never left Brazil. To quote again, now the words of the great Nelson Sargento, it agonizes, but it doesn't die. It's even cool now.
Samba is the local equivalent of those Roman statues. And it all began here...
Samba Kings Sing Songs of Desperation & Joy
Ours is the musical planet, spinning like a singing top in the blackness of space, and on this planet there are select areas -- New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta for example -- where confluences of people and history have combined to give rise to new and iconic musical forms.
This happened also in a place that many people have never heard of, where, so the story goes, a slave once said to his master: "You have conquered us, but our culture will conquer yours." The genius of those misbegottenly dispossessed would come to symbolize an entire nation.
Brazil and its National Music were born in Bahia,
Land of Saints & Magic
Why "Saints & Magic"? Bahia's great bay was first entered by Europeans on All Saints' Day, 1501, Amerigo Vespucci commemorating this by naming the bay Bahia de Todos os Santos (Bay of All Saints). And then there are the African saints so important in Bahia...Yemanjá, Iansã, Dandalunda, Katendê...
The magic? It's in the music, and in where the music comes from (the clip below was recorded Sunday, May 31st, 2015):
The Elemental Importance of Samba
Slavery is an unfortunate fact of human history, justified by Plato, practiced by, among others, the esteemed founders of the American Republic. In Brazil, among other reactions to this execrable inhumanity, came -- on the sugarcane plantations of Bahia -- the creation of a new dance and accompanying rhythms and music...not mere entertainment, but a celebratory affirmation of the human spirit under the worst conditions possible.
This then is samba's importance: It's a diamond created under immense pressure.....another in humanity's arsenal of not only survival mechanisms, but of prevailing mechanisms.
The Spark that Fired a Nation
"Samba is the soul stuff which has more than anything else kept aflight the collective Brazilian psyche." -- Gabriel dos Santos
David Dye, of World Café, July 16, 2013: "The first stop on our World Cafe Sense of Place trip to Brazil was in Pelourinho, the old part of city of Salvador on the country’s northeast coast. Hoping to get a sense of the roots of the samba, the backbone of Brazilian music, we captured a performance there from one of the most thrilling groups ever on the Cafe.
The two oldest styles of samba, samba chula and samba de roda, started with the original African slaves who were brought to Salvador in the Brazilian state of Bahia. One of the strongholds of samba is the village of Sáo Braz where septuagenarian brothers Joao de Boi (“John The Ox” - he raises cattle) and Aluminio (named for his shining sweaty face when he played soccer as a kid) sing in stirring duet in Samba Chula de Sáo Braz. For our special performance they are joined by Raimundo Sodre on vocals and guitar who is also very instrumental in keeping the original samba sound alive."
Samba-chula (or samba-de-roda, there is a slight difference) is a seminal but dying art played nowadays by a mere handful of people. The music fulfilled a role analogous to that of the delta blues in the United States in that it was/is the root foundation for most everything which came after it in Brazil's musical world, from the golden age of radio to bossa nova to tropicália to Brazilian hip hop. And ironically and in total contradiction to the situation of the blues, this cornerstone of culture now finds itself precariously close to disappearing forever (although those last legs certainly do have some life left in them!).
Something African Becomes Something Brazilian
"Chula", in Portuguese, denotes something worthless, of no value. The word was applied by the masters to the music of the Bantus on the sugarcane plantations of the Bahian Recôncavo (the region around Bahia's Bay of All Saints), coming to be innocently used by the slaves themselves and eventually metamorphosing into a term of pride. The rhythmic basis for samba-chula is that of the candomblé rhythm called kabila, or cabula, utilized in candomblé angola (candomblé is the West African religion transplanted to Brazil aboard the negreiros; candomblé angola was the first of the three candomblé nations to arrive on Brazilian soil). Laced into the polyrhythms of the atabaques, pandeiros, and rebôlo are the patterns of the cavaquinho (a small, high-pitched string instrument), the viola (a double-strung guitar-like instrument, though smaller), and the violão (guitar); (specific instrumentation varies from group to group). The dancing style -- precursor to the more ostentatious style of Rio de Janeiro -- echoes that of candomblé angola ceremonies:
Candomblé Angola at the Festa de Yemanjá; the troublesome woman has been possessed.
Birth of a National Music,
and Those Who Stayed Behind
Towards the end of the 19th century there was a huge outpouring of freed Bahian slaves moving to Rio, looking for work. These people carried their music with them to the territory around another great bay (Guanabara), where their descendents, forced up into the morros (hills) would come to see this heritage rise from its lowly-esteemed position to proudly assume the mantle of the National Music of Brazil. But not all freed slaves would make the journey south, and in Bahia the primordial samba, samba-chula, would live on, sublimating away over the course of a century-and-some-decades like vapor from dry ice until now almost nothing is left.
Beaten Earth & Stars
It'd be great to board a time-machine and pay a visit to 1930s Louisiana or Mississippi or Alabama, stepping up to a front porch on a humid summer's evening to clap hands to the rural American version of the above. But alas that time is gone and the time-machine is only a wistful figment of our imagination. Things have "progressed" more slowly here, but soon enough one will never be able to see or hear again what now requires but a journey into the Bahian interior to bear witness (or dance) to, if one knows where to go, and on what night...
◊ Bahia's primordial samba, unlike Rio-style samba, is played with what Jelly Roll Morton referred to as "the Spanish tinge". Zigaboo Modeliste would feel right at home with this music (fundamental second-line in New Orleans is one variation of samba in Bahia).
Giant Steps and the Bitter Harvest of Sweet Fields
João do Boi and Raimundo Sodré are two of chula's giants, João working in strictly traditional forms passed down through the generations (he learned from neither radio nor recordings, growing up in an area without electricity), while Raimundo, who likewise was born into deep tradition in the interior of Bahia (he learned percussion in a house of candomblé angola, where his aunt was mãe de santo, head priestess), moved on to create his own intepretations of the original styles.
Raimundo achieved national fame in Brazil in 1980 and was signed to PolyGram Records, before his career was crushed by the dictatorship and he fled Brazil. In the song that made him famous Raimundo sang, in the words of his songwriting partner Jorge Portugal, "At the handle of my hoe, I don't recognize (the power of) the big man."
Raimundo Sodré: Soul Stirrer, & Survivor
Raimundo in his glory days, singing A Massa (by Raimundo Sodré & Jorge Portugal) before the hammer fell.
Too bad Mick Jagger couldn't dance like this! (Raimundo takes off his guitar to do his candomblé angola & caboclo dancing some minutes in).
Flip side of Raimundo's LP "A Massa"; he's in front of the house he was living in when he was "discovered".
Raimundo winding up a performance.
Recording, May 27th, 2015
Howlin' Wolf of a Bahian Quilombo: João do Boi (John of the Ox)
(A quilombo is a village founded by runaway slaves)
João do Boi (John of the Ox)
João with one of his grandsons.
Some of João's group having a good time in the dressing room before a performance in Santo Amaro, Bahia, Brazil.
But What About the Bossa Nova?
Nothin' nova 'bout his bossa! Jorge Veiga
"Bossa" is, or was rather, Brazilian slang for a certain stylishness. In terms of music it was first used as per "samba de bossa", for music that had nothing to do whatsoever with bossa nova. This was the swinging music of Jorge Veiga, Cyro Monteiro, Elza Soares and a few others: boppin' big band samba as Brazilian as Jorge Veiga's finely-sculpted pencil moustache.
But for some people hot ain't always cool, and in the '50s the more well-to-do kids began to see samba as square old-guy music. They looked to movieland, the United States, and its popular music and cool jazz. Their music was sambafied when João Gilberto arrived in Rio from Bahia, playing samba rhythms as sophisticated jazz chords on his guitar; he was welcomed as an avatar. The rhythms he'd picked up on the streets of Juazeiro, Bahia were grafted into music conceived with another sensibility in mind. This wasn't heat and trial imbuing music meant to dance to. It wasn't torpor...it was languour. Cool. Defanged. Declawed. Gutted of the complicated polyrhythms played in samba. Domesticated down. De-Africanized.This isn't to say there isn't genius there (nor to say that there wasn't a lot of samba which adopted the label "bossa nova" for marketing purposes; nor to say that there wasn't a lot of blurring of the line between samba and bossa nova). Antonio Carlos Jobim wrote achingly beautiful melodies. Luiz Bonfa's Manhã de Carnaval (especially as sung by Elizeth Cardoso for the film Orfeu Negro, Black Orpheus) is supreme... But while bossa nova utilizes elements of samba, it isn't samba in the deepest sense*.
* To this day João Gilberto says that what he plays and sings is samba, and not bossa nova.
And Bahia? You might hear bossa nova here (just as you might hear it in Tokyo), but in reality this is sambaland. It's The Land Where Samba was Born, after all. It's African Brazil, and therein lies the fundamental difference between samba and bossa nova: samba is African; bossa nova isn't.
Bule Bule, the Griot of Bahia, is a very special guest on Sodré's new record.
In the 21st century there is no reason why any wonderful artist (musical or otherwise), no matter how obscure or where they are located (Brazil?), should remain completely outside of our range. Publicity can be bought, but we've got another way to do it...